My first time back on the Coker since my 20 miles without a dismount nearly 2 weeks ago. Today the weather was mixed: hot, humid, windy, clouds threatening storms later. It took an effort of will to pack my kit and go for a ride - I knew it’d be fun, but I knew it’d be hard work.
The Coker had been in at the local bikeshop for the wheel to be trued and the spokes to be tensioned. That’s the second time in just over a year, and I guess I’m getting about 250 - 300 miles between ‘services’. It’s hard to say exactly as I only fitted a computer after a few months of riding, and occasionally I forget to take it anyway.
So, I park my car in the delightfully-named Deerdale, in Sherwood Forest, and set off - straight up a moderately steep and long hill. The air seems short of oxygen today, so I soon divert from this climb onto a single track path through the forest. The spokes are knocking and banging every so often. Was the wheel repair a waste of money? I think glum thoughts.
The centre of the path is a deep single rut of dry sandy soil, chewed up by horses’ hooves, so I have to ride on the narrow shoulders of firm soil to each side, ducking now and again to avoid low branches. From time to time I have to cross the sandy rut to find a better line. Within less than a mile, the inevitable happens, and I put my new wristguards to the test! I roll out of the fall and the sun cream on my arm picks up a fine coating of sand and dust. Hands and wrists are unhurt.
A few hundred yards later, a second UPD, this time with no excuse.
I’m now in a section of the forest that I haven’t visited before, and I follow a rough gravelly track down a shallow gradient, forest to the left, cornfield to the right, until I come to a barrier. Hmmmm. Should I proceed past the barrier? I know that nearby there is a ‘paintball skirmish’ place, and there’s also a military training area somewhere in the forest. A lone rider on a big shiny unicycle would be just tooooo tempting!
Then a 4x4 pulls up at the barrier. The driver’s wearing a buff coloured shirt which looks a bit uniform-like. I act casual, and check my computer, fiddle with the adjustment of the seat, and so on. I notice that the magnet on the spoke is too close to the sensor - hence the banging noise I could hear! The wheel repair was OK after all.
Suddenly, the 4x4 reverses, then comes round the end of the barrier, dropping 2 wheels into the crops growing in the field next to the track. He’s not a security man at all - he’s a dog walker, looking for somewhere to park in the middle of the forest. Lazy sod!
I decide to go past the barrier, and I follow a road up hill and come to a group of farm buildings. Am I trespassing? I’ve not passed a warning notice. Ahead of me, I see a pair of open gates with notices on them saying ‘Private, keep out!’.
I’d better not go past the gates then… er… hang on… if I can read the notices when the gates are open… er… I’m on the side out of which I should keep! I nonchalantly whizz through the gates to legitimacy… then I see that one side of the road has about a 10 foot (3 metre) security fence in very good condition… and I see a family of cyclists, mother, father, and young kids, all obviously law abiding, and all on the OTHER side of this fence. Hmmmmm. Jus’ keep pedalling, Mike!
I pop out onto a tarmac road, follow that for a bit, and find myself at the visitor centre, with cycle hire (all new-fangled two wheelers) and a cafe. I’m hot, sweaty and tired, so I decide to stop. I think of this cafe as The Surprise Coffee Stop, because so far I have found it about 5 times, but I have NEVER found it deliberately! Navigating in the forest is like that.
Coffee is a diuretic - a bad thing to drink when you are doing exercise on a hot day, but the caffeine god has to be satiated… I sit drinking my coffee and listening to the parents ignoring their children: “Look, Mummy, a one wheeled bike…” “Yes dear…” “No, Mummy, it is, it’s a yoooonicycle…” Yes, dear." etc. I then pick up the ‘one wheeled bike’ and check the computer - a paltry 3.6 miles, and I’m tired already.
From here, it’s down hill for a bit, then I find some interesting side tracks, a couple of challenging steep inclines, and I get into the Coker Zone… not fast, but smooth and satisfying. Most of the bicyclists make friendly comments or say nothing. I notice that I take the interesting short cuts, but they all, without exception, stick to the hard packed smooth forest tracks. It must be the weight of all those extra components holding them back!
8 miles or so into the ride, I’m swooping along a packed mud track, and there are a few puddles blocking my way. I get tired of avoiding them, and splash through a couple, keeping the speed down so I don’t get soaked. One puddle is almost circular - about 37 inches in diameter, I’d guess. I ride into it slowly, and discover that beneath the surface, the puddle is almost a hemisphere! The wheel drops in deep and stops dead! Fortunately, I’m going slowly, and I have the control to let the forks and seat gently swing forwards around the axle, depositing me neatly on my feet. So elegant! I couldn’t repeat the perfection of that move if you paid me.
About 9 miles into the ride, I see a mountain biker fiddling with his machine. I stop to offer help, but all he is doing is using a pointy stick to remove mud from the moving parts of his clipless locking pedals. I wittily remark on the benefits of technology, and how much simpler a leather strap would be. We get chatting. He is about 60 years old, appears blind in one eye, and the other eye doesn’t look too good either. He’s on a 35 mile ride, on his own, and has clearly been doing some serious off roading as he and his bike are very muddy.
He directs me to an area of the forest he knows as ‘The Jungle’ and warns me of one or two particular hazards to be found there. I’m pleased that he makes no assumptions about what can or can’t be achieved on a unicycle… then he spoils the effect by suddenly noticing that my ‘bike’ is a unicycle - he does a classic ‘double take’ worthy of a silent film! To his credit, he carries on the conversation without making any banal or silly comment about the unicycle. He says one last thing as I’m mounting, I miss the mount, and he apologises for putting me off. (Heh heh! I would have missed anyway - by now, I’m hot and tired.)
Next, I find a short section with some hard-packed mud ‘obstacles’ clearly made for BMX/MTB use. Nothing too big, but fairly steep. I impress myself by riding them all first time. Then I get to the ‘very very dangerous’ off road course. In the middle of many many square miles of forest, a short section has been designated ‘rough terrain, suitable for experienced cyclists only’. As always, I ride it with no major problems - just one UPD when I make a last second decision to go the hard way, run off the edge of the path by a few inches and hit a small birch sapling, which folds beneath the Coker’s wheel. My momentum fails me and I make an undignified dismount. The sapling springs up and seems undamaged.
As always, the path from the off road course to the main track is harder to ride than the course itself! I UPD again, before realising that just because I have a handle, it doesn’t mean I can’t do the traditional arm-waving thing instead. The handle’s a big help on hills and rough ground in a fairly straight line, but when weaving between trees on a narrow winding track, holding it can cramp my turning a bit.
From here, I ride up a long and pretty steep gradient. I can see a colony of bicyclists sunning themselves at the top. It looks like a complete family group. They watch me ride up the hill; surely they can see that I’m a cyclist, not the cabaret? Nope! The alpha male makes the traditional call of “Do you know you’ve lost your front wheel?” This must be part of a highly evolved courtship display, because the alpha female laughs appreciatively. I can smell the pheromones.
I slap my hand on my helmet in a gesture meant to convey, “D’oh! Do you really think I got to be this good without hearing that one before, plonker?” Clearly they are not good at reading sign language, because there quickly follows a side-splitting enquiry concerning the whereabouts of my handlebars.
The next troop of bicyclists I meet is less of a pain. I overtake them at a steady speed, then a hundred yards later I hit the deep soft sand and come to an inelegant halt. The mother of the group tells me not to mind as I was doing really well before (clearly she’s a seasoned judge of off road unicycling). We get chatting. Father and child arrive. I warn the child to keep to one side as riding through the deep sand is too hard. At 6 years old, the boy knows better than an old duffer like me, and rides straight into the sand, sinking almost up to his axles. Parents and unicyclist share a moment of merry laughter.